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Viewpoints: Ellis Woodman on Belgium

Though small, the Flemish architecture scene is the envy of Europe: but for how much longer?

On 6 December last year Belgium finally formed a government − a six-party coalition, headed by the socialist, Elio Di Rupo − having gone without one for a record-breaking 589 days. Months of talks between the country’s highly balkanised political classes had made little progress, but after Belgium’s credit rating was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s in November, a sense of urgency was finally accepted by all. Di Rupo’s administration is now setting in place the kind of austerity measures that most governments in the West began to impose two years ago.

The irony of the situation is that, during its holiday from government, the country’s economy did notably better than most. Quarterly GDP data for the end of 2011 identified Belgium as enjoying 0.7 per cent growth - a figure that compared with 0.2 for the UK, 0.3 for the US and a particularly alarming zero for France. Sceptics of the slash and burn approach being adopted to tackle the world’s economic woes regularly cite Belgium’s prolonged prosperity.

For architecture enthusiasts, the prospect of Belgium’s imminent belt-tightening represents particularly bleak news as over the past decade, the Dutch speaking part of the country, Flanders, has established itself as home to one of the most progressive architectural cultures in the world. I am currently experiencing this at first hand, having been recruited to the international jury that is selecting projects for inclusion in the latest edition of the biannual Flemish Architecture Institute yearbook. As a British critic, contending with the marked contraction in the number of buildings − architecturally ambitious or otherwise − being completed in the UK, it has been galling to witness such a wealth of production. Although the population of Flanders stands at just over six million, this year’s yearbook received over 350 submissions, of a mean standard with which precious few countries could compete.

This is testament to the fact that − as with Japan in the 1950s or Switzerland in the ’90s − Flanders happens to have produced a world class generation of architects in the past decade, in the shape of such practices as de Vylder Vinck Taillieu, 51N4e, Office Kersten Geers David van Severen and Huiswerk. However, these sudden outbreaks of talent are never quite as unpredictable as they at first appear and in the case of Flanders it is certainly significant that the current generation is the first to have emerged since the 1993 redraft of Belgium’s constitution granted the Flemish community a significant level of political autonomy.

Among the many new political appointments established in response to that change was the creation of the post of Flemish government architect, the Vlaams Bouwmeester. The Antwerp architect Bob Van Reeth was the first to take up the post in 1998 and proceeded to set in place an innovative competition process to which all public commissions in Flanders are now subject. Every six months, the Bouwmeester publishes an ‘open call’ for submissions of interest for forthcoming public commissions. Architects enter a single portfolio and identify those schemes for which they wish to be considered, dramatically reducing the workload that is usually faced by practices pursuing commissions through a competitive route.

In contrast to the risk-averse nature of most competition processes, the norm in the Flemish system is to draw up a shortlist of five, of which two might have built a similar building before, two might be younger firms looking to move on to bigger things and a final one might be foreign. For many architects from countries where it can prove near impossible to secure work in a sector without previous experience, competition wins in Flanders have been crucial in enabling them to advance their careers. Given Flanders’ modest size, such a determinedly non-protectionist approach to foreign competition is remarkable, but the Flems recognise that such a spirit of openness is both a means of raising standards and discovering new ways of doing things.

The lesson of the region’s recent success is that strong architectural cultures only emerge if a society makes a commitment to nurture them. Whether Flanders’ commitment to architecture survives Belgium’s current programme of austerity measures we may sadly know all too soon. The fear must be that we are now witnessing the end
of a golden age.

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